The Functions of Conflict in a Story

By Benny Njuguna. Benny is from Nairobi, Kenya. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Writers employ various literary elements to achieve a desired or specific effect. A literary device can be defined as a technique or structure a writer uses to achieve a certain effect or purpose. Some of the literary devices are: flashback, foreshadow, irony, hyperbole, understatement, symbolism, imagery and so on. Conflict is one of the literary elements that is employed by writers in narrative writings e.g. short stories and narrative essays.

Conflict is one of the foundational stylistic devices applied by writers to tell a story. A story that lacks this literary device can be compared to a skeleton that is void of flesh, organs and a working heart and mind. This is well-stated by Veronica Roth, an American novelist and short story writer: “If there’s no conflict, there are no stories worth telling – or reading.”

Conflict refers to a struggle between two different forces. In most of the stories, it involves the protagonist (main character) struggling against other forces. The forces inhibit the main character from achieving his or her goals. Thus, the protagonist has to fight against the forces to attain their goals.

Generally, there are two types of conflicts: internal and external. Internal conflict involves the main character struggling with their own mind. A good example of internal conflict is whereby the main character has to deal with their fear. The fear may have an external cause but the character has to deal with it since it resides in their being. External conflict involves the main character struggling (fighting) against forces that are outside their grip. The outside forces include an antagonist (another person that opposes the main character referred to as an enemy), nature, animals or bizarre creatures.

The main character may not necessarily be a human-being. The protagonist can be an animal or a weird creature such as an alien.

The major function of employing this device in writing is to connect events together and propel the plot of a story forward. Therefore, a story will lack any purpose or there would be no point of telling it if it lacks conflict (whatever form it appears in).

As noted above, conflict enables a reader to make sense of the sequential events in a story. If there are no events, there is no story to tell. The events can’t occur if there is no conflict. On their own they won’t make sense or serve any purpose – a reader won’t make sense of the events. In addition, the setting is an important consideration in a story. Where the events take place and what happened or didn’t happen in a location is the gist of a story. All these are achieved through the use of conflict as a story element.

The other function of conflict is to arouse the reader’s emotions. When the reader experiences different emotions during the course of reading a short story, the writer will have achieved their purpose. By tapping into the reader’s emotions, a writer will take hold of the reader’s attention from the beginning of the story towards the end. When the reader can’t sympathize, love or hate a character; they won’t bother to read on. This is because the story hasn’t aroused their emotions.

When the reader’s emotions are not aroused, the connection that is formed between the characters and the reader’s mind is severed. A writer should aim to create an emotional bonding between the characters in a story and the reader’s mind. A story derives its taste by tapping into the reader’s emotional faculty.

As humans, we can relate with other people as a result of what they have undergone. Experiences, both good and bad, form the existence of our being. In a story, we can relate with the characters because of what they are experiencing. When we relate with them, an emotional bonding is formed. In another scenario, we may not have experienced what the characters in a story are undergoing but we can sympathize with them. By sympathising with a character, we hope or wish things turn out better for the character. Furthermore, the characters appear real to us (believable) because of what they’re undergoing, which has aroused our emotional feelings. The characters may not necessarily be human but through sharing their experiences we are able to relate with them.

One of the other most important elements in a story is suspense. The need to know what happens next (or not) forms another basis of a story. It’s the duty of a writer to arouse the reader’s curiosity. A writer should feed the reader with bits of information to create a sense of suspense in the reader’s mind. This can only be made possible by employing conflict as a literary device. Will the protagonist be killed? Will the protagonist achieve his goals? When the reader’s curiosity isn’t aroused, the reader won’t bother to read on.

As humans we are faced with a multitude of problems or challenges to overcome. We need to know how other people overcame their fears, how they solved certain problems or faced their obstacles. A reader would want to know how a character in a story faced their fears. Did they run away from their own shadow or did something cause them to face their fears and deal with them once and for all? If they did face their fears, how did they do so?

Some people debate whether a story should have a theme (idea) or several of them. While it is debatable, it doesn’t make sense to have a story that lacks a main theme and/or sub-themes. How will the reader know what the character was aiming for or fighting against? There would be no point of telling a story when it isn’t obvious what a character was trying to achieve or going against. Was the character trying to show the fallacy of certain people or an agency? A reader needs to know what the protagonist was aiming for or fighting against, and whether they achieved it or not.

Lastly, readers should learn something from the story. A writer should not only engage the emotional section of a writer’s being but also their mind. The story should make the reader think deeply about the characters, their experiences and the end result. This will create a lasting impression on the mind of the reader. It doesn’t mean the writer should plainly indicate what ought to be learned in the story. It shouldn’t be forced down into the reader’s throat. The readers have to find it for themselves and form an opinion concerning the characters, events and the ending of the story. As a writer, do you want readers to be accountable for their actions? Do you want them to know, learn or understand what it means to live in the streets with no four walls to call a home? Entertainment is part of the story but it should also be educative at the same time.

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